Camera operators shoot and record footage for a variety of mediums, including television, movies and online formats. They are tasked with setting up and capturing a scene to achieve the vision of all involved in a production, which may include being improvisational during live recordings.
”I have the kind of job that when I walk away there’s nothing to take home. There’s no paperwork, no reports, nothing I have to get in by Friday. I’m not the kind of person that could sit at a desk all day long, I would go crazy. I have to move around and feel needed; I find it very rewarding. When I was covering sports I used to travel a lot. You get to meet a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet. How many other jobs give you the opportunity to meet Chris Bosh, or Sir Richard Branson, or have a conversation with Michael Douglas? I’ve had Tom Cruise come up to shake my hand. Most people would never get to meet Tom Cruise on the job.” - Philip Kerns
”I always show up early to make sure my camera is ready to go and to see if there are any problems with it that wouldn’t hold up in production... Normally I show up at 8:30, look through my camera and make sure everything is cool. We start to rehearse. On “Shark Tank” we have to get in five pitches before lunch. That pitch could go 15 minutes, or it could go an hour. The minute they walk out, the art department sets up for the next pitch. 15 minutes later the next person comes out and, boom, ext pitch, it’s over. They go out, next pitch comes in, it’s fine. We get through five, have an hour lunch, come back, and go through four or five more before the end of the day. You don’t know how long you’re going to be there.
End of the day is usually around 5:30 p.m. The other day we got through 10 pitches and they said, ‘well Disney is coming in to do some stuff for a couple of Disney shows, so we’re going to be here another three hours’ (even though we just shot ten pitches and have already been there for nine hours). You have no choice but to bring your A-game and keep doing it. We shot the stuff, and after coming in at 8:30 in the morning we left by 10 at night. Turn around the next morning, back to work at 8:30.
It’s like baseball; you show up and it could be eight innings or it could be 13 innings. It really depends, you may tape two ‘Ellens’ in a day. Or you could be there at 8:30 a.m. and not shoot until 11:00 p.m.. You just never know.” - Philip Kerns
- Understanding elements of visual composition - symmetry, lighting, balance, framing, etc.
- Three-dimensional spatial reasoning and understanding the conversion to a two-dimensional format
- Knowledge of how to use cameras and other related technology
- Hand-eye coordination
- Physical stamina
- Communication skills
- Computer skills
- Studio broadcasts (including news, reality television, sports and so on)
- Music videos
- Advertising productions.
- Independent films
Being a camera operator often means working long hours. Filming sessions can start early and often do not conform to a typical nine-to-five schedule. Even if there is a set schedule, it is considered tentative due to reshoots or the addition of extra work if necessary.
On top of that, depending on the kind of camera work one is interested in, it can be hard to find a job, unless you have experience or connections in the industry. Much like any job, it can be a catch 22 of needing to have work to get the experience needed to get more work. There are opportunities more readily available today with smaller production companies and independently online than there have been in the past.
In broadcast, many camera operator jobs are disappearing in light of advancing technology and the ability to code and control cameras from afar. This is especially true in industries like news production, where anchors may only need to be shot from a small number of angles. However, certain productions, including game shows like ABC’s “Family Feud” and reality television shows like ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “Shark Tank,” still require a more hands-on approach.
- Most positions require at least a Bachelor’s degree in fields related to the field, such as broadcast, cinematography, cinema & television arts, and so on.
- However, one can be trained in how to operate a camera independent of a classical education via hands-on experience and the tutelage of industry experts.
The best thing one can do when going through school is to try and gain experience in working with cameras or computers; that way they know for sure that it’s what they want to do for a living. This kind of experience can be received in a variety of ways, be it independently through producing videos online, working a job as an assistant for a production company or taking part in a video production class or club in school.
"If I were trying to start today, I would probably try to find some kind of non-union production company that does reality shows, due to the high number of them. I would try to find a production company, try to get on as a production assistant or whatever it takes to get onto the set so I could meet everybody and say hi. Say hi to the cameraman and have him or her show you what they do. You just have to get in.” - Philip Kerns
One of the most important things for a camera operator to have is a strong work ethic. Not only are there long days with shoots and reshoots, each requiring a certain level of consistency and skill, but there is also an expectancy to understand what the director wants and perform your job without needing to necessarily be told what to do.
A successful camera operator also needs to have an eye for visual composition, symmetry and the ability to be spatially aware of the positions of other cameras on set to try and collect as many diverse viewpoints as possible. To be a successful camera operator also requires technical expertise needed to actually operate the equipment and the confidence to perform in spite of potential backlash from people like the director.
The best way to find a mentor is to become a production assistant on a set and shadow the camera operator.